The Paradoxes of Teaching a Multicultural Education Course Online

By Merryfield, Merry M. | Journal of Teacher Education, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Paradoxes of Teaching a Multicultural Education Course Online


Merryfield, Merry M., Journal of Teacher Education


In moments of frustration with parochialism and a relatively homogeneous student population, I have envisioned teaching a class as culturally diverse as the world's teachers. The course is a place where teachers from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas communicate across many cultures and languages, build a supportive learning community, and develop global perspectives of their own identities and economic, environmental, and technological changes facing their communities. In this classroom, political borders are as invisible as they are from a space shuttle, and time zones no longer matter. The teachers delve into relationships concerning equity and race/ class/gender in a seamless web of local-global interconnectedness. When there is conflict within the class, the teachers examine the values, contexts, and knowledge bases underlying people's points of view and explore methods of conflict management. By learning about cultures through diverse and contrapuntal literatures, media, and histories, the teachers deconstruct stereotypes and neocolonial-/ CNN-/nation-centric images of each other's cultures and develop knowledge of dynamic cultural complexities, recognition of the intersections of power and knowledge, and skills in negotiating cross-cultural relationships. Long after the class is over, the teachers continue to question, debate, and learn from each other about teaching, culture, and the changing world.

In 1998, my university funded its first courses taught totally through Web-based online technologies, and I was given the opportunity to offer a course to practicing teachers around the world, or at least the rather elite segment with access to the Internet, as the online courses would have no class meetings, no coming to campus, no face-to-face contact. Although the course I chose was required for teachers in our master of arts (M.A.) program, I wanted to teach the course online because it would be possible for teachers to enroll from anywhere on the planet as long as they met the usual graduate school requirements and had the skills, hardware, and software to send and receive messages. As I began to revise T&L 881 Multicultural Education for instruction through a home page on the World Wide Web (or simply the Web), I applied the same theoretical assumptions (discussed below) of cross-cultural experiential education that undergird my face-to-face teaching on campus and work in schools. I wanted to find out if these theories about teachers' professional development were valid when interaction and instruction take place solely over the Internet. During the next 6 months, I discovered much about online pedagogy, community building, and cross-cultural learning. Through an electronic lens, I saw new facets within the usual issues we face in teacher education in multicultural and global education, such as the significance of teachers' own identities, their experiences with human diversity, and their personal contexts of power and privilege.

Before the course was over, I was already puzzling over some intriguing paradoxes and unintended outcomes that came from putting the course online. Why was it that the teachers immediately jumped into an online discussion that was frank and expansive about prejudice, racism, and White privilege, topics that teachers resist discussing in the same class on campus? Why did some of the teachers from Asia and Africa say that online technologies helped them participate and succeed in the class whereas, as one Taiwanese teacher said, "These are Western technologies not of our culture"? And why, after some profound discussions and weeks of collaborative work, did many of the teachers feel they did not "know" each other, that their online relationships were not "real"?

In this article, I examine some issues in the new frontier of online teacher education and professional development. Be it intercultural education, international education, multicultural education, or global education, much of the scholarship in learning about, across, and within diverse cultures emphasizes face-to-face experiences with people who are different from the learner. …

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